Academics are mounting an offensive against the legal status of Italian degrees as one of the basic obstacles to a radical renovation of the ailing state university system.
They argue that if the value and significance of a degree is established by law, then all degrees are equal and there is no incentive for universities to compete for quality and prestige.
The degree's legal status means it automatically gives access to certain job categories. This is a cast-iron system in the public sector, where no distinction can be made between degrees from a university known to be mediocre and easy, and one known to be excellent and difficult. But the system can apply in the private sector where national contracts are compulsory.
A degree ensures, for instance, four years' seniority for pension benefits in many heavily unionised national contracts. Conversely, the degreeless are barred, by law, from many jobs, irrespective of their competence or the desires of their employers.
Stefano Zamagni, head of Bologna University's department of economics and a consultant to both premier Romano Prodi and to the Vatican, said: "Many academics are not stimulated to do their best, since the final product always has a guaranteed value. Without the legal value of degrees, they would have every interest in aiming for quality. We are the only European country to maintain this system."
Franco Ferrarotti, a sociologist at Rome's La Sapienza University and one of Italy's best known social commentators, said: "In the points system for careers in the public sector, a degree from Italy's worst university has exactly the same value as a degree from the best. This means many people go to university not to learn, for intellectual aspirations, but simply to obtain a piece of paper that will be useful in a safe, secure career working for the state.
"The trouble is that Italy's democracy fosters an absence of competitive spirit. It is an inheritance of fascism, when the 'corporations' regulated employment. And every category of workers defends itself from outside competition."
Francesco Antinucci, a former professor of psychology who now works at the National Research Council, goes further: "Abolishing the legal value of degrees would eliminate a double rigidity. The rigidity in taking on someone for a job and the rigidity of the impossibility of this person ever changing to a different job within a public sector employer. In a university or research institute, for instance, a brilliant technician cannot have a job for which the law demands a degree."
Responding to calls for abolition, Italian university minister Luigi Berlinguer recently said: "The subject is important, but let us not dwell too much on it ... autonomy in teaching will open competition for quality between universities."
His lukewarm enthusiasm for a popular government reform is at first mysterious. According to Professor Ferrarotti: "The resistance from a profoundly conservative academic establishment would be enormous. Many academics grumble, but at the same time they have their niches of power, a captive market for their books among their students, and are afraid of rocking the boat."
Professor Antinucci added: "The abolition of the degree's legal value would overturn the existing system of power. Academics would be forced into real, genuine competition. The current mechanisms for assigning and obtaining posts would no longer work."
As the debate over the legal status of degrees burgeoned, Professor Berlinguer, who is also education minister, announced that secondary school students matriculating in June 1999 will have to choose their degree courses by November 1998.
This follows a 1997 ministry directive calling on schools to provide guidance to students in an effort to cut the university dropout rate of more than 60 per cent. For the first year, however, students will be able to change their minds after enrolling.
There is scepticism, however, as to how effectively guidance will be provided. "The idea seems good," said Raffaele Simone, the Rome linguist and author of a book that sharply criticised the Italian university system. "But I do not see how he can make it work. I've been working in the university for 30 years, and I have yet to see one of the tutors who were announced some time ago."
The system of guidance should include visits to universities, and analysis of the various fields of study. But it is not clear who should take responsibility.
"Guidance requires precise programmes, operative structures to support teachers," said Enrico Panini, national secretary of the largest school teachers' union. "Today, these things do not exist."
In most fields in Italy, there is often an enormous gap between the announcement of programmes and reforms, and their application.
This is the result of a cumbersome political system, but above all of precariously balanced coalition governments that need the support of innumerable political groups and lobbies.
Reforms are often hopelessly watered down by the time they are passed. Professor Berlinguer's hopes for a renewed, efficient, modern university system will have to run a political gauntlet that has brought many an ambitious programme to grief.